Presented on Friday, August 4 in the Kolker Hall Auditorium on the Elmira College Campus as part of Elmira 2017: The Eighth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies. Beginning with Mark Twain's sudden ascent to the rank of American Artist right around the year 1950 - Gladys Bellamy's book; Eliot's and Trilling's competing songs of High Modernist eulogy, and an aside on why we got them at that moment - I'd look into that same beirf span of time, the early Fifties, as the kick-off for the next big thing, the ferment that began with the Beats, and Salinger and gave us the Sixties and Kurt Vonnegut and Doctorow and eventually Ray Carver and Tess Gallagher and Brautigan and Eggers and Alexis and so on: American Po-Mo. Periodically, MT's work has been evoked and echoed as a kind of forebear or household deity, and that casual homage and claimed kinship kept up for nearly half a century, as Postmodernism turned scholastic and began losing its steam. Robert Coover's recent Huck Goes West strikes me as a convenient ending point, another sign that the real or imaginary relationship between MT's work and Po-Mo has run its course. Coover's book strikes me as an inept hijacking of a Mark Twain character and a tin-eared effort to reproduce his voice, offering many moments when Huck sounds more like Bill and Ted from San Dimas High - 'whoa, most excellent, Dude!' - than like a boy raised 160 years ago on the Missouri shore.
On a large scale, what's happening with Po-Mo and Mark Twain's connection to it? For one thing: the rise of this new politics in America, of a bloody and protracted clash of civilizations, and a financial and ideological assault on college and university humanities programs may be coaxing academe, and its writers on the payroll, to swap po-mp archness for something closer to classic mimesis, an urgent return to varieties of realism to get us through the crisis and to demonstrate our high seriousness and cultural value. Looking at the last few years of Pulitzers, National Book Awards, and Booker Prizes, I think I can see such a shift of evidence. If so, what will be the next iteration of Mark Twain mythology to help us through that?
Bruce Michelson is author of Claude Monet: The Water-Lilies, and Other Writings on Art (2017), Printer's Devil: Mark Twain and the American Publishing Revolution (2006), Literary Wit (2000), Mark Twain on the Loose: A Comic Writer and the American Self (1995), and over thirty articles and book chapters.